Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Alpha Dog has been in the headlines quite a bit ever since last year’s Sundance Film Festival and not coincidentally the headlines actually spawned Alpha Dog. The true story concerns a drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood who would become one of the youngest people ever on the FBI’s most-wanted list; Alpha Dog for the most part and rather glossily tells the rest of the story. Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch)—the Jesse James Hollywood character—is a hothead drug dealer well respected in his suburbanite posse which includes sycophant Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) and burnout Frankie (Justin Timberlake). After speed freak Jake Marzursky (Ben Foster) shorts him in a pot deal and vandalizes his house Johnny exacts revenge by kidnapping Jake’s young brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). To Zack the kidnapping is a blessing an intro to the party lifestyle he’s always wondered about and Johnny and co. aren’t sweating what they think is a scare tactic. But when they learn they’re looking at (long) hard time for the kidnapping the guys realize that simply returning Zack to his house might not be an option. Even though the only real difference between Timberlake and his Frankie may lie in the number of tattoos his (for all intents and purposes) debut performance is a genuine eye-opener and further proof that when you’ve got “it ” the medium just doesn’t matter. Throughout much of the movie Timberlake’s best work is simply making you forget he’s the world’s biggest pop star but he shines most during the movie’s dramatic climax. Yelchin (TV’s Huff) also excels. He’s blessed—or perhaps in Hollywood cursed—with a face that will probably always look younger than it is and that along with his accompanying expressions makes you feel a number of things for his character. Rising star Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) plays Truelove—in real life the central figure—with equal parts cool and A.J. Soprano hissy fits while Foster (Hostage) is his archenemy and antithesis simmering or exploding in every scene. Audiences will laugh at Foster’s over-the-top turn but it suits the absurdity of his character. Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone as parents thrown into the ordeal don’t add much beyond their names but Stone’s botched fat suit in one scene kills an otherwise raw moment. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes turned The Notebook into a surprise box office hit (with a little help from Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling of course) and unfortunately that’s what he tries for with Alpha Dog. It’s a movie that should be more along the lines of Larry Clark’s uncompromising Bully instead of a cross between that film and say Malibu's Most Wanted. Furthermore it seems the Timberlake Effect swayed the director into MTV territory as he apparently tries to reel in some of the pop star’s contingency when this is certainly no kids’ tale even though it’s about kids. But despite the movie’s often ambiguous tone and frequent testosterone injections Cassavetes manages to engage us and take us along for the roller coaster ride. He captures with great accuracy the reckless abandon and invincibility complex with which these specific people operate (and party)—it’s pure hedonism for them and the audience. Until he sets reality into place at which point it inches closer to the aforementioned Bully.
In this latest doomsday pic Earth's inner core has stopped rotating a situation that will eventually cause the planet's electromagnetic fields to collapse. If it isn't fixed pronto static charges will create "super storms" that will generate hundreds of lightening strikes per square mile and cause microwave radiation to ultimately cook the planet. Government and military officials conjure up a team of scientists led by geophysicist Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) to travel to the planet's core and get it spinning again. Accompanying them are geophysicist Dr. Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) atomic weapons expert Dr. Levesque (Tchéky Karyo) "terranauts" Major Childs (Hilary Swank) and Commander Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Dr. Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo)--the renegade scientist who built the subterranean vessel. Their mission is to travel to the center of the earth to detonate a nuclear device that will hopefully jump-start the core and save the world. Like the "terranauts" grinding their way through Earth's layers to get to the planet's core The Core laboriously plods through the storyline to get to its climax--and both are equally uneventful.
Despite a really corny scene in which he demonstrates what will happen to the planet by torching some sort of fruit on a fork Eckhart (Possession) is believable as the sensible Keyes. Co-star Swank (Insomnia) meanwhile brings intensity to the role of fledgling astronaut Childs. It is Tucci (Big Trouble) however who creates the film's most interesting character the arrogant Dr. Zimsky. The diva-esque geophysicist heads to the center of the earth in style with his Louis Vuitton monogrammed canvas bag and an endless supply of cigarettes--making him politically--and refreshingly--incorrect. You'll love how he pompously records the mission's progress in a Carl Sagan-style narration. Back at mission control D.J. Qualls' computer-hacking character Rat mirrors a recent report describing the characteristics of computer virus writers: Male. Obsessed with computers. Lacking a girlfriend. Aged 14 to 34. Capable of sowing chaos worldwide. Qualls (The New Guy) couldn't be more suited for this digital graffiti artist role.
Director Jon Amiel helps define the film's main characters by weaving vignettes of their everyday lives throughout the first half of the film but so much effort is devoted to exploring their individual backgrounds that relationships among the team members are never established. The minor characters are like extras in a Star Trek episode--they're just onscreen to die. The Core also fizzles as a believable disaster movie because of its flimsy scientific reasoning even if you try to suspend your disbelief for the sake of cinematic "escapism." While I can make myself believe for example that a government-created weapon of mass destruction is to blame for the planet's imminent annihilation I cannot buy into the notion that this high-tech vessel was built by a renegade scientist in his backyard and is able to withstand the rough trip to the center of the earth. Although the film's original November release date was delayed because more time was needed to complete the special effects don't expect to be visually dazzled by the voyage. Most of what we see is what the "terranauts" see on their screen: spotty black-and-white renditions of sharp jagged rock. Scenes of the Roman Coliseum getting zapped by lightening and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge melting aren't convincing either.